Category Archives: david byrne

David Byrne: Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around,” featuring David Byrne (author of Bicycle Diaries), Jack Layton, Ken Greenberg, and Yvonne Bambrick. Hosted by Ben McNally.)

Bike-parking

“Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around” was all about how bicycles and bike-culture would play a major role in revitalizing dead or dying urban spaces, especially as automobiles became less and less practical with respect to the environment and one’s personal finances. This was a panel that resonated with big ideas and optimism. Generally, the belief that bikes would make cities better was beyond contention—the only question was how to make it easier to get them on the road.

Talking Heads frontman turned mixed-media creative artist David Byrne got “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around” started off with a series of general ideas and static images. This ended up working out very well, as Byrne was content to put a lot of ideas into people’s heads and let them draw their own connections/conclusions.

He started his PowerPointesque presentation with a series of books about cities that he’s read and enjoyed. They were: Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by Michael Sorkin (deconstructing an average daily commute); The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (Byrne stated rather forthrightly that his eyes glazed over on certain chapters (e.g., red-lining, etc); The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander (in which, to paraphrase Byrne, the author looks at timeless ways of building cities and tries to find patterns).

Termite-mounds

After the books, Byrne proceeded to a number of cities of the imagination, basically summarizing a few ideas about how people thought cities would one day look back before there were cars. Byrne’s first “city” was actually a photo of “cities of highrises” made by by termites. This was then contrasted with a photo of downtown Los Angeles (Byrne glossing it “the kinds of termite mounds we live in”). From an image of LA as it was, Byrne moved into a number of visions of LA as it might have been: an artist’s image from 1920s of what cities might look like; Frank Lloyd Wright’s city of the future; Buckminsterfuller’s idea of the future city; and finally, Le Corbusier’s “The Radiant City”, which, of course, actually did get to to be implemented in numerous metropolitan areas, to mixed effect.

Radiant-city

From cities of the imagination Byrne moved on to actual cities, however dystopic: he montaged a number of photos of urban areas in U.S.—all devoid of people—in order to make the point of how user-unfriendly certain parts of large cities have become (read: suburbs). He also showed a couple of truly awe-inspiring signs meant to concretize the antagonistic relationship between the city government and its citizens: one read “Anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence” (courtesy of the Newcastle police, although Byrne correctly noted that there’d be “no one around to say anything anyway”). Another American sign sported the Orwellian message “Safe under watchful eyes.”

After showing a number of images meant to evoke some consternation, Byrne concluded his presentation with a number of scenes meant to inspire hope and perhaps point a way toward more friendly cities. He was particularly keen on Mediterranean-style plazas, as well as the urban life in places like Mexico City, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. Byrne even noted the outdoors lifestyle inspired by a “fake street” in an LA shopping mall called “The Grove,” along with, for some reason that eludes me yet, floating whorehouses in Utrecht. Byrne concluded with a number of different solutions for bicycle parking, from the Dutch, who seem happy to ditch them all en masse and create a sea of metal, to Portland, OR, which has recently begun replacing car parking spaces with bicycle parking (two bikes to one car).

Byrne’s rather idea-based presentation was followed by that of Toronto-based activist Yvonne Bambrick, who dealt mainly with what locals could do to improve bicycle culture in Toronto. Bambrick was the founder of the first organization to represent needs and rights of bike riders, the Toronto Cyclists Union, which she saw as filling a need in cycling advocacy in Toronto. In contrast to Byrne, who sounded ever so slightly like a guru, Bambrick’s delivery was that of a community organizer come to talk to one’s group.

Bambrick started out by noting that the city’s own goal of 1,000 km of bike lanes in Toronto by 2011 would fall far short of being fulfilled, and she urged audience members to connect with their city council members to demand that bikes get due consideration when the city undertakes construction projects.

She also briefly discussed her thank you to drivers campaign, the essential idea of which was to thank drivers that are courteous to bike riders, as opposed to complaining when they did bad things. Her union had printed up stacks of cards that anyone could give to drivers when they did a particularly bike-friendly thing while driving.

Bixi

Bambrck concluded her presentation with the BIXI campaign in Montreal, which provides bikes (free in some cases) for public use 24 hours a day. Bambrick was in the process of bringing BIXI to Toronto. Her long-term goal was to create a “Complete Streets” policy that would be used in forthcoming city construction. The essence of Complete Streets is the idea of looking at all road users (and not privileging automobiles) when redesigning roadways. This included the idea of completely revamping streets so that the pedestrian, the bike rider, and the car all had their separate places, essentially dragging automobiles down from their place of importance on today’s streets.

Third up was the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Jack Layton. Layton’s presentation felt a bit like a stump speech—it was a talk heavy on anecdotes and extremely energetic. To wit, Layton harkened back to the ’60s, when bike riding was perceived as a much more subversive activity than it is today. He briefly mentioned his friend “Bicycle Bob” who called Layton and his bunch “velorutionaries.” Layton claimed to have formerly wore a wear gas mask while riding his bike (to protest car pollution and generally freak out drivers. And, finally, Layton noted a couple of instances where he attempted to get a city law changed to something that was more bike-friendly, being denied, and then having the law enacted after the death of a bike rider. Essentially, Layton’s contribution to the afternoon was to be cheerleader for bike riders and assure people that he was doing everything he could to gain bikes a more prominent place on Toronto’s streets.

The panel concluded with urban planner Ken Greenberg. Greenberg made no bones about his dislike of the car-based community, calling automobile society an idea that had been brought to its “absurd conclusions.” He also bemoaned the fact that bike riding had been changed from a natural part of everyday life to something now seen, alternatively, as: a toy (for kids), a sport, a form of recreation—basically anything but one of the normal modes of transportation.

Greenberg focused on bringing the bike back to part of daily life, and he saw the return to biking as an arc; that is, we started out biking and walking through cities, we detoured through this weird car-based city, and now we’re headed back to bikes and feet. Greenberg made a number of pronouncements about the inevitability of this happening (calling car-based cities a “small blip in the evolution of cities”), although he was short on actual details about how and why this would happen. (It was hard to tell whether or not this was a function of Greenberg’s limited time on stage. He did seem well-prepared and confidence-inspiring in his command of the subject, but more details would have helped bolster his case.)

Copenhaen-bike

Like Byrne’s presentation, Greenberg’s used a collection of slides to convey a sense of how things change as one moves from the city center (user-friendly, community-building) out to the suburbs (the opposite). In general, the picture Greenberg painted was one of bigger, uglier signage, smaller, more dangerous sidewalks, greater and greater distance between intersections, and businesses and houses being pushed back businesses from street.

Tokyo-bike

Greenberg concluded with some examples of cities that were making efforts to normalize bike culture. Thus, the example of several European cities that now offer three-tiered roads (pedestrian/bike/automobile), as well as Tokyo, which Greenberg said drags out heaps of bikes into the open for anyone to use on Sundays at the Imperial Palace.

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